Are We Actually Going To Let Industry Heads Advocate Texting in Theaters?

Telluride - cell phone (Getty Images)

There's nothing more enraging to me as a moviegoer than that dreaded moment when, in the middle of a movie, the unmistakable, un-ignorable glow of a cell phone screen cuts through the glorious darkness in my field of vision and takes me out of the viewing experience. Texting, sexting, checking emails, Tweeting -- I don't care what your excuse is, it's not okay to ruin everyone else's experience by using your phone (or talking or shaking the entire row of seats with your nervous-boredom knee jiggle or letting your stank feet air out in the aisles or snoring, you selfish prick.) So why would theater owners or studio heads, whose job it is to deliver an enjoyable movie-going experience to their paying customers, ever even entertain the notion of allowing or encouraging texting in a movie theater?

That's just what some members on a panel discussion entitled “An Industry Think Tank: Meeting the Expectations of Today’s Savvy Moviegoer” at CinemaCon reportedly proposed today in a conversation about issues facing the industry. Deadline's David Lieberman reports:

Regal Entertainment CEO Amy Miles says that her chain currently discourages cell phone use “but if we had a movie that appealed to a younger demographic, we could test some of these concepts.” For example, she says that the chain talked about being more flexible about cell phone use at some screens that showed 21 Jump Street. “You’re trying to figure out if there’s something you can offer in the theater that I would not find appealing but my 18 year old son” might.

You know what else these hypothetical teenagers want when they go to a movie? To see R-rated boobs and sneak into other movies without paying, so let's just let them do all of that, too.

IMAX’s Greg Foster seemed to like the idea of relaxing the absolute ban on phone use in theaters. His 17 year old son “constantly has his phone with him,” he says. “We want them to pay $12 to $14 to come into an auditorium and watch a movie. But they’ve become accustomed to controlling their own existence.” Banning cell phone use may make them “feel a little handcuffed.”

To which I say: Handcuff those kids! Teach them some self-control, for goodness sake. And what does it mean when the IMAX guy is totally okay with his kid being on the phone in a movie? In an IMAX theater there's literally no room in your field of vision to look at anything else, but interrupting your experience to look down and text is cool?

Which brings me to the first issue here: Kids. Not the kids themselves per se, but the fact that pretty much the entire hypothetical justification for allowing cell phone use in theaters stems from an attempt to solve the issue of dwindling attendance by blaming the teenagers. You think every kid out there is so ADD-addled and attached to their iPhones that they won't or can't focus on a movie for two hours? (I mean, maybe.) Does that mean we should let them or anyone of any age do whatever they want in a theater? HELL NO.

Here's the thing: You can't just let The Text-Crazy Kids blaze up Facebook in a theater in order to boost box office without messing it up for everyone else -- and that includes the rest of us old people and that segment of the teenage populace that, you know, doesn't need to compulsively check their phones at the movies and maybe, just maybe, hates it as much as the rest of us when other people do it. To officially allow texting in a theater is to effectively encourage texting in a theater. And while folks like Miles might experiment with outside the box teen baiting strategies --and good luck to her in that -- how can you even effectively host a text-friendly screening? By offering specialty showtimes, a la Baby Brigade or 21 and Up screenings, maybe?

Who knows? Such an approach might just work, and I'm sure the theater owners would rejoice in the box office boom and bathe in the shower of gold coins and allowance money that followed. But here's my request, if it comes to that: Keep those screenings segregated and instill a text-friendly screening surcharge; if moviegoers MUST TEXT during a movie, make them pay extra for the privilege.

The real problem with this line of thinking, though, is its potential effect on film culture at large: Once texting is allowed, why not talking, or any of the plethora of bad theater behavior that could snowball from there? The thing is, texting in a movie isn't just an issue of allowing overstimulated kids needing to be plugged into their apps and social networks and conversations at all times; it's a far more problematic issue of engagement at the movies. And not just for the texters, who might be half-paying attention to a movie while chatting up their friends, but for those around them who deserve to be able to watch a film without interruption or distraction.

By encouraging texters to engage half-way with a film and allowing their bad behavior to ruin fellow moviegoers' ability to escape into the magic of the movies, we'd be killing the sanctity of film culture. Audiences will learn not to pay full attention to a film -- and if you can't focus on a film, how are you to appreciate it? Why come back to the movies every week if you care less and less about movies themselves?

The exhibition and studio pros at CinemaCon seem to care less about the greater impact on film culture in their desperation to increase ticket sales. Thank goodness for Tim League. His Alamo Drafthouse cinemas, headquartered in Austin, Texas, take pains to protect the filmgoing experience -- recall the infamous anti-texting video that went viral last year -- and at CinemaCon it seems he was the lone reported voice of reason on the issue:

“Over my dead body will I introduce texting into the movie theater,” [League] says. “I love the idea of playing around with a new concept. But that is the scourge of our industry… It’s our job to understand that this is a sacred space and we have to teach manners.” He says it should be “magical” to come to the cinema.

Note that in response to League's laudable declaration, Regal CEO Miles reportedly retorted that “one person’s opinion of magical isn’t the other’s.” In Miles' world, "magical" probably means "profitable." In other news, remind me to never patronize a Regal theater again.

Going to the movies should be a magical experience, even for those casual ticket-buyers who just want to escape for two hours and who go to the cineplex maybe five times a year. My two favorite theaters in the world, League's Drafthouse and L.A.'s New Beverly Cinema, notably enforce a no-talking, no-cell phone policy because the people who run them and their patrons, for the most part, agree that movie-watching is a special experience. They love the movies, and I'm not sure I can say that Miles and Foster proved at CinemaCon that they do, too. Movies are meant to transport, and by their nature that's an intimate relationship between art and receiver. You should never have to compromise your movie-going experience because of some fidgety asshat in the row in front of you.

So: Am I alone in this, or do other people have to fight the urge to wrestle texters' cell phones out of their hands during a movie and hurl them at the wall whenever that dreaded light illuminates the dark? And at what point should we become alarmed if industry execs keep batting these ideas around to boost ticket sales?

Sound off.

Photo: A sign reminds people of strict rules regarding cell phones in the theaters on opening day of the 28th Telluride Film Festival August 28, 2001 in Telluride, CO. A ringing phone during a screening will result in immediate ejection from the theater and no refund. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

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Comments

  • CJ says:

    So well freaking said. It never fails to confound me - why bother going to the movies (or anywhere) if you are going to text, talk on the phone, talk to your neighbor, goof around, etc? In other words, anything but watch the movie you came here to see?! Is your money that disposable?

  • Joshua says:

    As less and less people go the theater, it's perplexing to me why theater owners are going to greater and greater lengths to make me want to stay home.

  • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

    I think they should work with the texting permissable concept. Talking about the theatre experience as magical, brings up Hugo-esque genteel nostalgia rather than thoughtful scrutiny. What we might need, are times specific times where cell phones are not permitted, rather than reverse: it would seem more fairly to represent where we mostly now are at, the overall preference of those existing now. What could be thrown in with this marginal status, though, is an agreement to winnow down the number of commercials, and perhaps to get rid of them entire. I'll be your old foggie, movie theatres, but you're going to cater some to ALL OF MY OLD SCHOOL expectations!, or we'll never shut up, always the thorn.

  • Jordan N. says:

    "But they’ve become accustomed to controlling their own existence.”

    Sounds to me like the cell phone controls their existence. So yes, let's encourage bad behavior. No wonder society is going down the tubes.

  • Justin Rector says:

    I've never been bothered by the glow of a cell phone. Just sayin'.

  • Kevin says:

    Those "specific times" are before and after the movie. If you really can't go 2 hours without lighting up your phone you need to reevaluate your life. I really have no patience or sympathy for those that would rather inconvenience others rather than themselves. Stay home.

  • TD says:

    While texting is definitely annoying, the far and away top problem at most of the movies I go to see is people who won't shut up. This has been consistent for over 10 years. A lit up phone sucks, but it's not like I can't ignore it if I must. Someone blabbering away behind me while I'm trying to follow dialogue is much more unforgivable. But yes, I would never have thought there would be any serious argument FOR interrupting movies. Keep it up guys and I'll finally follow through in my promise never to go to the theater to watch movies again.

    • Jen Yamato says:

      Agreed. I hate disruptions of any kind (obviously, ha) and I constantly have to interrupt my own viewing experience to shush talkers myself. Most theaters don't monitor at all, though more vigilance on the part of management seems much more practical a solution than re-educating the portion of the populace out there who are completely ignorant of their own behavior.

  • Roy Batty says:

    Well, if you wanted to guarantee that theaters continue to experience a decline in attendance, go ahead and let this happen.

    What I hear from friends and family REPEATEDLY is why should they spend $10+ to see a movie in the theater if the texting and cell phone use is allowed to go on. The general public is very aware that the theatrical window is just 4 months now and I have heard them say point blank they'd rather wait to see something at home if theater managment can't controll their auditoriums.

    You want to see what is going to make a lot more middle class and/or older people decided piracy is justified? Well here it is. Might as well get that download of THE AVENGERS to watch on your 70" LED or plasma opening weekend than deal with the clueless teens making the theater look like a rock love ballard is going on and their phones are lighters.

  • CL says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. Movie going used to be an experience and one of the magical moments of my life. On top of the insane price of going I absolutely cannot stand the poor manners most of the current movie going public displays today. Just for the thought and the thoughtless attitude, whether or not they even go through with it, I will never attend another Regal cinema again. There are other theaters I can attend if I desire to go.

    • Roy Batty says:

      Luckily, Regal is not located near me and the one in downtown L.A. charges for parking so it costs TWENTY!!! dollars to see a flick there.

  • Alex says:

    Listen, my entire life plan is for my children to become the overlords and masters of the troglodytes around them. I love the fact that younger generations are becoming less competent and focused. That way, they will not be a threat to my occupational status, and my fairly average kids will seem like geniuses in comparison. Thus, I say, anything that caters to the weaknesses of the plebes should be supported.

  • Peter Finch says:

    Do what I do - and I really do this.

    If someone near me repeatedly uses their phone, I grab their phone and throw it the fuck across the cinema.

    I've only needed to do this on a couple of occasions, when it was evident that the person was the sort of argumentative twat who would give "attitude" if you tried to reason with them.

    On every other occasion, the person was either the type that immediately became embarrassed and obliged to turn off their phone when asked "are you going to keep dicking about with that phone, or what?", or they were sat far enough away that I had to resort to spitting Coke/Pepsi at them trough a straw.

    I'm not advocating violence at all, but if you let them know in no uncertain terms:

    "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

    they get the message, and everyone can get on with enjoying the movie.

    Whilst I love Austin's Alamo Drafthouse cinemas, I doubt I would ever go there to watch a move I really cared about seeing for the first time.

    Even when I'm not eating or drinking there myself (it's a choice between watching the screen, or taking care not to spill BBQ sauce down your chin and on your shoes, or knock your fries or drink in to your lap - the two activities are mutually exclusive) it's still very distracting having the waitresses serving other cinema goers their meals, or taking their drinks orders.

    Other than that, they are a great chain of cinemas.

  • Bambino says:

    Remember when people went to the theater to chill out and get away from the daily grind? It's been like that since movies were in theaters. Lot's of you sound like you go to the theater by yourselves! I can see if I was to go to the theater by myself (never have) I would be annoyed by people talking and texting. But when I go to the movies I'm there to have a good time, to be entertained. People that get pissed off when someone talks or laugh, needs to take a pill. Not everyone that goes to the movies instantly connects their brain directly into the movie. So next time you hear a few friends laughing or talking, don't get your dick all hard and rage. Not all people are movie snobs and elitists.

    Peace

    • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

      I think that's where a lot of people are clearly at, bambino. You should all be respected; but those of us who do not like the texting, etc, aren't fairly estimated snobs and elitists -- it's not affectation, but natural -- we're just engaging differently. Your intent is obvious, but, still, that isn't peace talk. Leave that out next time, alright?

    • Elmore says:

      Yes, because the only people who aren't loud, braying jackasses in the theater are "snobs and elitists" who go to "the theater by themselves."

      I do like to see movies by myself (I know you think that's ca-razy talk, Bambino!), but even when I'm with a group of people I still manage to scold morons like you. I paid to see the movie, not hear your stupid, unfunny comments.

      But I'll try not to "get my dick all hard and rage" next time a group of mouth-breathing windowlickers like you can't keep your fat dumb mouth shut.

    • Sith Lord Draconis says:

      Bambino: So you're saying that basically anyone who actually goes to the movies to see the MOVIE needs to see a psychiatrist, and doctor-shop if necessary so they can get some Valium. Right, because WE'RE the crazy ones. Not the little kid jumping around saying PSHEWW PSHEWW PSHEWW, not his parents who sit there like they're too full of Rohypnol to even realize said toad exists... We, whose fiance has taken us on a date to the movies and shelled out $20 for this special occasion since we CAN'T just go to the movies whenever because of the economy, and are both AVID fans of the movie we've chosen (IE Avengers, which draws on our mutual interests) - need to remember to drop by the psych ward and pick up some Thorazine. Really.

  • Bambino says:

    Also to add onto that comment, I do not have much tolerance for texting twats. Keep your damn phone off during the movie.

  • vince says:

    Tonight I saw Jackpot at the Tribeca Film Festival. I'd waited weeks to see this movie from Norway written by Jo Nesbo. Introducing the film they quickly said "and oh yeah turn off your phones" and the person next to me didn't. I asked. A few minutes later I asked again and added that they had said to turn them off so she put it away. It came out again and again to check messages - maybe 30 times. That bright light on the large screen lights everything up. I asked the Tribeca person and they said "they aren't trained to take care of this". I mean if you can't or won't enforce this at a film festival then where? I give up unless someone has a better idea to get at least festivals/indy theaters to do something.

  • loudrockmusic says:

    To be brief on the topic of phone use in theaters: HELL TO THE NO.

  • The problem is that cell phone bans are so rarely enforced as it is. I live in New York, where I read we'll soon be getting an Alamo Drafthouse (yay!), and at the major chains, texting happens all the time. Talking is never discouraged by theater employees. I've never seen anyone thrown out of a movie or even spoken to by theater staff for that kind of behavior. Not ever. They want to "relax" the ban? Any more relaxed and it would be asleep.

    Theater owners wanting to allow texters to run rampant is a clear reflection of their pandering. They want to get their desired youth demographic in the door and to fork over their money. They want the rest of us to fork over our money too, but they don't consider the very many people a relaxed ban will drive OUT of theaters (including me). Or they think we're too old to be relevant to their bottom line. (I'm 28, by the way.) What doesn't enter their minds at all is the idea that movies are a shared experience that require shared trust. One person can single-handedly ruin the experience for dozens of others, but the theater owners don't seem to care. Once they have our money they're not interested in what happens next.

    As it is, I go to movies less and less because I get a more immersive experience at home, away from the bad behavior of more and more moviegoers. If they ever decide to move forward with relaxing the ban, that would be a good time to invest in Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Redbox stock.

  • Dan says:

    I love your article! I agree with many of the comments here. But it's nothing new, it's been a slow decline ever since the VCR was introduced into American homes and people became comfortable stopping the tape (DVR nowadays) or rewinding so that they can editorialize to their family or friends. Problem is, you can't rewind a movie in the theater. And I don't want to! Nor do I want to hear any comments from family, friends or strangers once the movie has begun! Hell, I'm interested in the trailers too (but slightly more forgiving during those).

    It seems like people today think that whatever is going on with the folks on the other end of their phone is more interesting than the friends and places they are physically closest to at the moment.

  • The moviegoing experience can be terrible. People have always talked but now that everyone has a smart phone, we now need to deal with the people that feel the need to look at their phone every 5 minutes. And now almost every theater has digital presentation, which looks inferior to film. For 10 years I was a projectionist, and for half that time I was at a theater where I screened a new film once a week after closing time, a private show. Any other moviegoing experience can't compare, so I find myself avoiding it more and more and just watching movies at home.

  • Countess Chocula says:

    I am a staunch advocate of mouth shut eyes on the SCREEN in movie theatres. I do not hesitate to move away from buffoons who haven't got any concept of what theatre (movie and plays) etiquette means. I've always wondered something: can a theatre be built so that a cell phone cannot get a signal once the owner is in the theatre? You want to check your messages you'll have to get up and go outside. THAT might do some good. What would work? Concrete? Kryptonite? Whatever it is, the movie house that employs this feature would get all of my business!

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